Inspired by Roland Barthes, Meghan O’Gieblyn’s monthly column, Objects of Despair, examines contemporary artifacts and the mythologies we have built around them.
Science lifted us out of nature. It tamed the wilderness; it gave us tools to transcend our lousy, fallen bodies; and it shot us to the moon. Now it has produced a hamburger made entirely of vegetables that bleeds like real beef. The packaging of the aptly named Impossible Burger instructs you, as if daring you, to cook the patties medium rare. Three minutes on each side, and the center will remain the fleshly pink color of raw sirloin. This effect is the result of heme, the protein that carries oxygen through our blood and gives it its crimson color, and which food scientists have discovered how to ferment in a lab using genetically engineered yeast. (Pedantic foodies will point out that the red in beef is not blood but myoglobin, but this is beside the point. We call burgers “bloody” to acknowledge a truth that modernity has long tried to obscure: that meat was once, like us, a living thing.) Heme, which is abundant in animal muscle, is also what lends beef its distinctive flavor. The first time I prepared the Impossible Burger at home, the skillet erupted into a fatty sizzle (the patty contains emulsified coconut oil, which melts like tallow), and within seconds the air filled with the iron aroma of singed flesh. But the most uncanny moment arrived when I finished eating and there remained on the plate a stain of pinkish-brown drippings. In that moment, when I should have been marveling at the wonders of food science, I confess I was thinking of the weeping Madonna of Civitavecchia, a wooden statue that was said to shed tears of real blood—the signs of flesh where there is none.
Religion, of course, was our original method of transcending nature. Asceticism, in its efforts to overcome carnality, has always rested on the renunciation of carnis. (Beyond Meat, a popular vegetarian brand, evokes this transcendental promise.) The earliest meat analogues favored by Buddhist monks bear little resemblance to animal flesh. Is it possible to envision a more notional form of sustenance than tofu? Colorless, odorless, it recalls nothing in nature—certainly not the soybean from which it is derived. This, coupled with its lack of any definitive origin story, seems to confirm that tofu is an otherworldly substance, dropped from heaven like those UFO alloys that have been found in the Nevada desert. But what makes tofu the ideal ascetic food is its consistency: even vegetables require the brutish baring of teeth, but bean curd is soft enough that it can be consumed practically by osmosis. (In China, it is brought to the graves of relatives whose ghosts have long ago lost their chins and jaws.) Seitan, another ancient substitute, is more versatile: it can pass as duck or goose, but this verisimilitude has inspired its own brand of spiritual anxiety. In the Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West, demons attempt to trick a monk by serving him a meal of human flesh and human brains stewed as if it were wheat gluten.
It is odd that we have invested so much ingenuity into putting “blood” into fake meat when the oldest Abrahamic religion has fixated, for millennia, on its removal. In addition to its painstaking lists of clean and unclean animals, the foremost prohibition in the Hebrew Bible, reiterated again and again, warns against eating meat “that has its lifeblood still in it.” Historians have speculated about the psychological motivations behind the elaborate process of salting, rinsing—and, in some Orthodox communities, blanching—that ensures kosher products maintain no trace of blood (hygiene has been proposed, unconvincingly). But the reason is stated by God himself in the book of Leviticus: blood was to be reserved for ritual atonement. The animal’s life was ransom for your own and its blood could not be consumed like a common food. As barbaric as this ritual appears today, it did rely on a rigorous spiritual algebra. Like the Eastern ascetics, the rabbis understood that nature was a scrupulous accountant who could not be cheated. If you wanted transcendence, you had to pay the price—if not by abstention, then by finding a living thing to take your place.
Christ was the final lamb led to slaughter, spilling enough heme to cover the sins of the world. His death inaugurated a new covenant of food ethics—one that arrives, with dramatic flourish, in the book of Acts. The apostle Peter has gone up to the roof to pray, but while doing so, he becomes hungry and falls into a trance. When he looks up, he sees an enormous sheet descending from heaven, containing every kind of animal: mammals, reptiles, and birds. A voice commands him to kill and eat the animals, but Peter recoils—“Surely not, Lord!”—since many of them are unclean. The voice bellows in reply: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” The message could hardly be more blunt: there would be no more abstention, no more substitution; everything was fair game. But it is a dreary scene of liberation. It’s impossible not to hear in Peter’s protest the vague dread that always accompanies the abolition of a long-standing limit.
We in the modern, secular West are still living under this new covenant of abundance, and are rapidly approaching its logical end. We have killed and eaten all animals, then bred more. We have surfeited the earth’s arable land with cattle farms and slaughterhouses, which collectively emit more greenhouse gases than all forms of global transportation combined. The new bleeding veggie burgers are billed as a solution to our ecological crisis. They are not marketed to vegetarians and vegans; their corporate mission is evangelical: to convert carnivores at a moment when the taste and means for meat is spreading, like a zombie virus, across the globe. These companies have attracted the same billionaire investors (Bill Gates, Li Ka-shing) who back biofuels and nuclear energy and, like all forms of green growth, they stand to profit on a bleak—though perhaps not inaccurate—view of human nature. It is now simply assumed that we will cling to our burgers and SUVs even as the ozone vanishes and the polar bears die—unless, that is, the laboratory manages to produce from plants something identical: not a substitute but the thing itself.
Today, it is not Christ but science that declares all things clean. Most of us have by now come to dread its never-ending factory of miracles: bacon conjured from tempeh and wheat gluten; meat-lover’s pizza topped with soy sausage and cashew cheese. Ours is the dispensation of meatless Buffalo wings and vegan Philly cheesesteaks (Surely not, Lord!); of chick’n nuggets and White Castle veggie sliders. In the beginning, many meat analogues consisted of soy and gluten, foods that likewise came under scrutiny and were eagerly forfeited—until we discovered that there existed still more, fully permissible, substances. Cakes could be concocted out of amaranth and sorghum. Gumdrops could be summoned from agave. Hemp and oats could be milked and enriched with calcium, and the finished product was passable as—and, in some cases, better than—what it claimed to imitate. In America, the ascetic impulse is thwarted by the engine of consumer choice and limitless growth.
But the blood in vegetarian burgers is too richly symbolic to be dismissed as a gesture of verisimilitude. Should we take it as a sign of atonement, an acknowledgment that we have repented and been granted forgiveness? Or is it a gothic reminder of our ecological sins—an indelible stain, like the blood Lady Macbeth cannot wash from her hands? Early coverage of these products routinely declared them “eerie,” “creepy,” and—in the words of one food critic—“a dark sorcery.” Such derision reveals something more than aesthetic revulsion, something approaching spiritual unease. It’s possible that fake meat is beginning its shadowy descent into the uncanny valley. This is true, at least, of the “clean meat” in development at West Coast start-ups—beef, chicken, and salmon grown in vats from stem cells. Despite few people having yet tried them (one brand of clean meatball costs $18,000 per pound), these products have been widely spurned as “Frankenmeat.” The allusion to Shelley reveals a counter-Enlightenment ethos that still, occasionally, rears its head—or perhaps an older, more primitive knowledge that nature cannot be coerced into performing wonders, that miracles are always tricks. (As for the weeping and bleeding Virgins: One such icon was taken to a laboratory where scientists discovered that it had been coated with pork and beef fat. When the statue was placed in a slightly warmed room, the fat would liquefy into droplets that resembled tears.)
A good portion of the UN’s most recent report on climate change addressed the problem of land scarcity due to animal industries. Technological solutions alone, the UN argued, could not be relied on to solve this problem; instead, the crisis demanded “diet shifts” on a massive scale. What it called for was—in a word—asceticism (or, in the jargon of the IPCC scientists, “demand reduction”). If we wish to survive on this planet, economies must be restrained; we must learn how to live on less. It’s possible that mock meat, with its uncanny verisimilitude, may help avert, or at least delay, total catastrophe. Or perhaps it will merely confirm our secret hope that human ingenuity will outwit all our creditors, that, in the end, we will be made to relinquish nothing.
For now, the sacrificial ethic persists—at least superficially—in the language of “substitution,” which still appears on restaurant menus, where meat analogues are accompanied by an up-charge of a dollar or two. In raw financial terms, the new and improved fake meats are still more expensive than the lives of animals. And perhaps it is this fact—even more than the symbolism of blood—that reminds us that absolution always comes at a cost. Every dispensation of grace demands its pound of flesh.
Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of the essay collection Interior States. Her work has appeared most recently in Harper’s Magazine, n+1, Tin House, and The Best American Essays 2017.